The Evolution of the Portrayal of Hijab in Popular Culture

The Hijab has evolved from symbol of oppression to fashion statement to those who don’t understand what the the veil (Hijab) symbolizes. In Islam, Hijab is a symbol of piety and obedience to one’s lord. Since the age of Orientalism when veiled women were portrayed as exotic and a subject of fantasies to now an age where the hijab is a symbol of empowerment and women reclaiming their body image from men and from being objectified. (The Muslim Veil in America) As I was conducting research to further prove this point I noticed that in the artifacts I have chosen that depict veiled Muslim women in popular culture (popular blog, new show, and a prominent magazine) as empowered and show the hijab in a positive light. The 3 different artifacts depict 2 real women and 2 fictional characters succeeding in all spheres of life from education, career, and the fashion.


The second artifact I have chosen is a fictional character as opposed to the Individual World Poetry Slam champion and the first veiled Muslim model for the H&M campaign. All the artifacts I have chosen show Muslim women who wear the veil in a positive light. The women are empowered, strong, and educated. This recurring pattern is giving me hope that our society is becoming more accepting and knowledgeable. When I see one of my most important identities portrayed in the media in a such a way I feel proud to be an American. The media is the greatest challenge that Muslims face in their day-to-day lives because most media coverage concerning Muslims is slanted, portrays Muslims as being hostile, and implies negative tensions between Christians and Muslims. Much of this information is propagated by Islamophobes who either don’t know anything about Islam or have an agenda of their own. (Smearcasting: How Islamophobes Spread Fear, Bigotry, and Misinformation)

In the article that we read in class The Urgency of Visual Media Literacy in Our Post-9/11 world: Reading Images of Muslim Women in the Print News Media, it was interesting how she introduced Edward Said’s Orientalism to teacher candidates so she could familiarize them with the concept of “othering”. Orientalism has several different but interrelated meanings. Generally, the word Orientalism describes the way the West understands the Orient in context to Western experiences. While Western scholars, Orientalist, attempt to form a collective body of knowledge of an entire half of the Globe, including Eastern philosophy, history, religion, culture language, and social structure, an entire half of the globe is generalized and categorized. But the political connotation of Orientalism was a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the differences between the familiar (west) and the strange (the east). This idea of the minority being viewed as the other is not a new concept.


As a minority population in America, Muslims women face many challenges and difficulties. Some of these challenges can be overcome easily and others require a bit more effort and struggle. They are faced with discrimination and prejudice. They also have trouble assimilating into the current Western culture. It’s even more difficult for them when the people who are the majority are trying to keep them from integrating and assimilating with them because of ignorance and miscommunication. The media is the greatest challenge that Muslim women face in their day-to-day lives because most media coverage concerning Muslim women is slanted, portrays them as oppressed, subjugated, and victimized. Much of this information is propagated by people who don’t understand what veil signifies. I know firsthand what it’s like to be categorized, stereotyped, and discriminated against because I too wear the veil. As a Muslim women I am constantly and cautiously aware of how I carry myself and how present myself. For many people I maybe the first veiled Muslim Women they come into contact with in an academic or professional setting. And whether or not I like it they will, consciously or subconsciously, use me as an example of what a Muslim Woman is like. (Smearcasting: How Islamophobes Spread Fear, Bigotry, and Misinformation)

I found the original article on buzzfeed through FB. It describes the events that went down on the grounds of Yale university. However, the article was written by a community user so I wanted to make sure that the information was factual. I looked up the information and found the same information on a more credible site. The article was written to recognize Emi Mahmoud for her award. The target audience of Buzzfeed is millennials, tech savvy, global, and cosmopolitan, an increasingly more tolerant and open minded generation.

At the Annual Eid celebration, Emi Mahmoud Neo-Priestess is recognized as the Individual World Poetry Slam champion of 2015. The title of the article, Muslim Girl breaks the internet. The last time the internet was broken, thanks to Kim K, it was due to her almost nude body covered in oil, alcohol, and a tasteless black garbage bag. Now the internet is “broken” because… an empowered Muslim women wins a global award while wearing the hijab and getting an education at Yale. Fans worldwide reply with adulations of “SLAY” and “this is so lit”. What I found very interesting was that almost all captions that went along with the pictures from the event made some reference to pop culture. The setting; hogwarts, the girls poses; Solange inspired,  their ootds and makeup; Flawless (Beyonce), and the title; Kim K. I never expected Muslim women who have reached acclaim to be compared to other “notable” women from the Knowles sisters to the more notorious Kardashian, classy or not. Why does their presence need to be compared to these other women in order to be recognized as influential or distinguished? By comparing Emi to these women, the connotation is that we cannot see or understand her success without comparing her to other popular figures in our “culture”. In a way it’s demeaning as well because her success cannot stand alone without that comparison.

The piece definitely showed veiled Muslim women in a positive light.The article used the title to grab the audience’s attention. Muslim girl breaks the internet. The last time the internet was broken by Kim Ks almost nudes. However, the reader quickly realizes that this blog post is very different. Veiled Muslim women can take the stage and do awe inspiring things


The writer of the piece on Buzzfeed thought that Emi was a “Queen’ who “Slay[ed]”. In current popular culture to be described as a Queen who as slaying (doing exceptionally well) and then to have your art described as “lit” (amazing; turnt), is the highest adulation you can receive.

As a Sudanese American attending an Ivy League, Emi has probably overcome a lot of discrimination and challenges to get to where she is today. Some people might say that the only reason she got accepted to Yale or won the award is because of affirmative action. As a survivor who endured so much, escaped Darfur with her family and who is trying to achieve her goals and fulfil her grandmother’s dreams, I see her as a role model and someone who I want to aspire to be like. When you read her story regardless of whether or not you identify with her you should feel inspired as I do. Even though the odds were stacked against her, she came out on top, a victorious Queen.

Here is one of Emi’s more recent pieces:

The ABC drama Quantico, premiered this fall. According to Variety, Quantico ratings are climbing especially for a show that runs on Sundays at 10. An arresting drama set at an FBI training school, with diverse characters. ABC networks writer/executive producer Josh Safran for Quantico says that the writing staff is very diverse even including a Palestinian Muslim. He wants to start conversations in America’s living rooms.


What makes this show so enthralling? The demographically diverse characters? The depth of characters who ask questions that are necessary for our nation to move forward and develop? The most interesting character (in my opinion), Nimah Amin, is a Muslim woman who wears the hijab and has an accent. Later in the show it is revealed that she actually has a twin and the both of them are there as one student for an experiment run by the deputy director, a black woman who is also the highest ranking women in the FBI. “Nimah” is bold, brazen, and sometimes brash. A far cry from the stereotype of the demure, subservient victim that is often portrayed by Hollywood. She makes her opinions known, and makes sure everyone knows that she doesn’t especially care about their opinions of her. She’s there to become an agent because “she” is gracious for the opportunity that America has given her.

From the very start the audience knows that the show is about finding the identity of the person responsible for the largest terrorist attack against New York since 9/11. Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) the “protagonist” and a brown girl as well is framed for the attack. It later become obvious that the terrorist is one of the FBI’s students. As the episodes go along and more information surfaces, certain clues make some of the students look guilty. The blonde debutante heir to a fortune who is becoming an agent to avenge her parents death in 9/11; the “gay” Jew, former CPA, former IDF soldier who lived in Palestine who wears fake glasses; the resident golden boy blonde and privileged by all accounts and a notorious underachiever who only got into the academy because of his parents have all gotten their turn under scrutiny. However, the veiled Muslim women with the accent has been shown in the most positive of lights. She is shown as an empowered and educated agent. Is this a bureaucratic decision made so as not to offend or is there a deeper meaning behind this decision to keep this character from coming under scrutiny?


The creators behind Quantico come from diverse backgrounds and it is reflected in the content of the show. The most obvious and important way it’s reflected is the characters are demographically diverse, not whitewashed nor do they conform to mainstream stereotypes. It’s refreshing to see diverse characters on TV played by their respective identities.

It’s a show on ABC network that’s gaining viewers and ratings. Since there are commercials in between I’m assuming that’s how they make their money. They have to keep ratings and viewings up so that may influence the content of the show. They have to make sure that the plot twists and character addition if any, don’t upset their viewers so much that it affects the ratings. In one of the earlier episodes, a Mormon character is shown in his temple garments. Later it is revealed that said character should have been ex communicated on grounds of misconduct while on a mission and tried for criminal deeds. This caused an uproar in the LDS community but obviously not enough to lower ratings and views.

Often times when ethnic or diverse characters are shown on major networks are whitewashed within an inch of their identity. Sometimes you will have a white actor playing a person of color. As recently as the beginning of this year in the movie Aloha, when Emma Stone plays a Hawaiian and quarter Chinese character. Some think that one of the reasons that the movie did not do well at the box office was because of this “cultural insensitivity”.


Another cultural insensitivity in episode 6 when Simon and “Nimah”’s friendship becomes more than just that and culminates in a passionate expression of “Nimah” removing her scarf and telling Simon it’s ok for [for him to kiss her presumably].  This bothers me because so far the producers of this show did everything so well in presenting this character. The scarf is a symbol of submission to her Lord, only her family and her husband can see her without her scarf, and pre-marital relations are forbidden in Islam. Entertainment media is often not synonymous with accuracy but I would like to see how their relationship develops or doesn’t. Especially when they examine his Zionist background and her Muslim family.

The tentative caress:

In an age of fast paced technology and social media a phenomenon “the Instagram model” as emerged. That’s how, Maria Hidrissi, the first veiled Muslim women in a H&M campaign was discovered. As I conducted further research I found out that this campaign, H&M Close the Loop – Sustainable fashion through recycled clothes was released September 2, 2015 on youtube. The campaign released by H&M hopes to reach its diverse customer base by featuring Sikh men, a transgender women, an amputee, and a veiled women. Maria, an entrepreneur of Moroccan and Pakistani descent, owns a beauty salon in London where she calls home. A budding fashion blogger, she was surprised when H&M contacted her. Her initial response, they know I wear a scarf right?


You can view the full campaign ad here:

According to their website, H&M is the second largest global clothing retailer and they continue to expand. Where does their success come from? They aim to provide fashion and quality sustainably at a great price. They also collaborate with prominent celebrities fashion houses and designers. Their newest collaboration with the fashion house Balmain will hit the stores in November. The campaign urges its target market that the only rule of fashion is to recycle your clothes. The video features a demographically diverse group of people.

As a relatively new company (68 years young), bringing revenue of billions of dollars, remaining  socially responsible, and environmentally sustainable is difficult. And now this campaign released before the release of one of their largest collections and collaborations with Balmain (French fashion house). If H&M was not known as a socially responsible company people might have “thrown shade” towards them for engaging in such common marketing tactic. New companies are generally expected to be sustainable in order to be successful on the long run. However, the campaign has come under the radar because they might be using the diverse models as a marketing tactic and not actually because they believe the society has become more accepting. This is important because people need to be conscious consumers and as Americans we are “brainwashed” by million of dollars of marketing and we often buy into such campaigns when in reality they are not as socially responsible or environmentally conscious as they say they are.

The creators of this campaign ad believe in being socially responsible and environmentally conscious. If you associate or identify with any of the minority identities featured in the campaign you might feel like the fashion industry is becoming more welcoming and accepting. As a person of color, and a veiled Muslim women who shops at H&M I definitely feel good about being represented by the brands that I like to shop from. Even though the fashion industry in general has a long way to go before they can be classified as progressive or accepting I do feel like H&M is changing the game.

There is no doubt about the commercial purpose of the campaign ad. H&M is a company that has a combination of good company values and a great marketing advertising department. According to AJ+, Muslims are expected to spend an impressive $484 billion on clothes and footwear by 2019. Not advertising or tapping into this niche target market would be essentially throwing away money. In the fashion industry many designers and brands choose white models with certain body types (fit/toned for men and underweight for women). The models must conform to certain standards of “beauty”. These standards rarely if ever represent the majority of the population. It is refreshing to see such a big company take that leap and be one of the first to break these constructs.

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It is interesting to see how increasingly veiled Muslim women are showing up in recent popular culture. Growing up, I can safely say that I did not see veiled women on TV or magazines or blogs. It’s fascinating to see how the preconceived notions about veiled Muslim women have evolved over time; especially since 9/11. During the rise of Orientalism, the veil woman was seen as exotic or someone to fetishize. After the decline of peace in the Middle East, the veil became a symbol of oppression and victimhood aa way to silence women. Now there are prominent veiled Muslim women are coming into the limelight for doing incredible things; Ibtihaj Muhhamed who is on the American fencing team, Asia AKF a fashion blogger and entrepreneur with over 1.5 million followers on Instagram, and many more. These are the faces under the veil.

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There is a newly emerging “Islamic” culture industry specifically market towards muslim women. These Muslim women have been active as consumers and producers in this new industry. Many of these women are writers editors models and business owners. The entrepreneur in specific have paved a new road while combining Islamic teachings with new concepts of fashion, lifestyle, and beauty. Since Muslim women’s needs are specific this creates a niche market that is constantly changing and redefining how the Muslim woman is shown. In specific, this paper will discuss how images and ideals of the Muslim woman are produced, broadcasted, and consumed by an increasingly capitalist global market.

There are social implications that comes with what it really means to be a Muslim woman who wears the veil in the market as a producer or a consumer in a capitalist society. Many of these women have to navigate between stereotypes and preconceived notions of the orientalist days while presenting themselves as independent and professional. Much like the feminist movement in America, Muslim women want to challenge and reify stereotypes by making their voices heard. (Introduction: Muslim Women, Consumer Capitalism, and the Islamic Culture Industry)

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There is also a growing Muslim lifestyle magazine industry that has emerged for an increasing Islamic Bourgeoisie. Namely fashion editorials but unlike the ones we are familiar with, such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, these magazines feature veiled and modest women. The different magazines have appeal to a variety of Muslim women and present different lifestyles from the elite fashion bloggers to the working professionals. These magazines prove that you can be a modest veiled women and lead a fashion forward lifestyle. They use different aspects to appeal to these women. Some use the common cultural aspects, socioeconomic status, or degree of “piety” to attract certain consumer/customer base. However. the different magazines discussed all had the same challenge of overcoming the politics of how they represented Muslim women.

This reminds of the discussion we had in class of the influence of the media. In the media saturated world we live in today, we are constantly bombarded with images of the ideal. Doctored images, of what perfect people look like. At every turn, we are besieged with images of what we are suppose to look like. The magazines and commercials that extol the beauty of the size 0 figure are endless. Girls, before they even reach puberty are affected by these images so much that they feel that they are lacking, or will never be beautiful. This is also the same media platforms (Instagram mainly) that is also helping Muslim veiled teens find their style or fashion inspiration from the likes of ASCIA_AKF and YAZTHESPAZ89. Media influence can be used positively in this case of this Muslim girls who might feel that they are not represented by their favorite actors, models, and musicians. (Marketing Muslim Lifestyle: A New Media Genre)


Muslim media such as these lifestyle magazines face challenges when it comes to depicting veiled Muslim women. The point of contention is modesty. Some consider the veiled women in the magazines as not modest enough and others say the women are too modest. Another interesting point I came across in my research is how the identity of Muslim women has been materialized or commercialized. The veil is required for Muslim women to wear as symbol of submission and piety to their Lord. On the other hand, many fundamental components of capitalism “self-indulgence, conspicuous consumption, this-worldly orientation, materialism, and individualism” is against the basic principles and teachings of Islam. Not to mention the fact that the veil, a symbol of reverence and devoutness, has been commercialized.  (Introduction: Muslim Women, Consumer Capitalism, and the Islamic Culture Industry)

One thing that fascinated me is how the Hijab has evolved from symbol of oppression to fashion statement to those who don’t understand what the the veil (Hijab) symbolizes. Since the age of orientalism when veiled women were portrayed as exotic and a subject of fantasies to now and age where the hijab is now a symbol of empowerment and women reclaiming their body image from men and from being objectified.

Works Cited

Bee, Zenith. “Community Post: Muslim Girls Break the Internet.” BuzzFeed Community. N.p., 7

Oct. 2015. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Bhagwati, Anu. “ABC’s ‘Quantico’ Is A Breakthrough for South Asians on TV.” New Republic.

N.p., 27 Sept. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Castellanos-Monfil, Román. “Yale Senior Wins the Individual World Poetry Slam

Championship.” Yale News. YaleNews, 26 Oct. 2015. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Cohen, Lori, and Leyna Peery. “Unveiling Students’ Perceptions About Women in Islam”.The

English Journal 95.3 (2006): 20–26. Web.

H&M Close the Loop – Sustainable Fashion through Recycled Clothes. H&M, 2015. YouTube.

Gökarıksel, Banu, and Ellen McLarney. “Introduction: Muslim Women, Consumer Capitalism,

and the Islamic Culture Industry”. Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 6.3 (2010): 1–18. Web.

Lewis, Reina. “Marketing Muslim Lifestyle: A New Media Genre”. Journal of Middle East

Women’s Studies 6.3 (2010): 58–90. Web.Porter, Rick. “Where ‘Quantico’ Goes From Here: Creator Breaks Down the Twisty Premiere.”

The Hollywood Reporter. N.p., 27 Sept. 2015. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Rendall, Steve, Isabel MacDonald, Veronica Cassidy, and Dina Marguerite Jacir.Smearcasting:

How Islamophobes Spread Fear, Bigotry, and Misinformation. Ed. Julie Hollar and JIm Naureckas. NY: FAIR, 2008. Print.

Watt, Diane. “Journal of Media Literacy Education.” “The Urgency of Visual Media Literacy in

Our Post-9/11 World: Reading I” by Diane Watt. N.p., 10 Sept. 2013. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

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About adenhafsa

My name is Hafsa Aden. I am a Sophomore at Portland State University. I am the oldest of four and family is really important to me. I am a Somali-American born in San Diego, California and raised all over the country. Raised by immigrant parents, a first generation immigrant it will be interesting to learn more about how people like me are portrayed in media. My life the two cultures, Somali and American, have fused together, to become more of an amalgam then two separate elements. Growing up in a large Somali community and attending public school for most of my life has shaped my life and become part of my identity just as much as my experiences of growing up as a Somali-American. I look forward to helping my classmates become more knowledgeable about the differences between the reality of what it means to be a Muslim first generation immigrant and what popular media/culture/perception will have you believe.

2 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Portrayal of Hijab in Popular Culture

  1. Hafsa,

    I admire all of the topics you touched on in discussing the Hijab. I didn’t entirely know exactly what it symbolized, only that your family and your husband are allowed to see it off. I admit, there is a heavy light of oppression in terms of the Hijab, but you solidified a question I have always had. I knew there had to be more to this material, and it means something so beautifully. A “symbol of submission and piety to their Lord.” Also, I am glad to learn knew words and their definitions, such as orientalism. I have heard of it, but never have I thought to look it up.
    What was very informative for me was the fact about H&M beginning to integrate a diverse set of modals with diverse set of backgrounds and connections with culture and religion. I do not think H&M is bringing in these people for “marketing tatic.” Yes, it may bring in more sales, but the fact companies are beginning to branch out to everyone rather than specific models, it is refreshing like you said.
    Overall, this was a very powerful blog and very informative of symbol many do not understand. I salute you for embracing something that is so important and holy to your beliefs, and simply for who you are. It’s absolutely breathtaking when I see more Muslims lend a hand, meaning that they give us insight about a culture we mistaken as for being oppressed. Thank you for teaching me how lovely and divine diversity is and sharing something so valuable, it’s truly an honor to hear something I do not entirely know about and understand.
    I do have a personal question that I’m curious about. When I visited Japan, my host mom wore a scarf around her head to hide from the sun, but upsettingly her family joked that she looked alike a Muslim. I think the Hijab is a beautiful symbol and something that shouldn’t be joked about. It means so much more than covering your hair. It means to only allow certain loved ones, especially our Lord, to see and adore (from what I am understanding). Recently during this last summer, I had been wanting to wear a scarf over my head because of the heat, and I’m not concerned what people may think or how they look at me. I am concerned whether if I even have the right to wear a scarf like a Hijab, even though I do not follow the Muslim religion? I do not want to disrespect everything that it symbolizes and what it means to those who do where their Hijab with a valuable and honorable purpose. I know during the 60’s, it was a fashion to where a scarf with a slight bulge of hair on the top to show, but fashion has changed and now a scarf represents more so as a cultural and religious association, but still fashionable nonetheless. I may be thinking too hard on this, but is it a sign of disrespect to wear one of scarves as if it were a Hijab? Or do you think it is becoming a fashionable source of material in general and is that ok, even if people began wearing them when they do not follow the religion?


  2. I really like how you chose something close to you. I think this is very educational for people who don’t know what the veil really represents and how a lot of women choose to wear apposed to it just being a symbol of oppression. Since my family is from Iran, and in Iran you are forced to wear the veil no matter, I sometimes saw it as a symbol of oppression. But as I got older, I learned more and more about what it really symbolized, and how it is a part of my culture weather I choose to wear it or not. You did a very a good job of showing what the hijab really means and how it is a positive thing for women.

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